After all, there was really no need for our MD or our guests to become dispondent.

Having been named as a Finalist in the ‘Best Use of Cloud Services’ category, Smart421 may have been a tad surprised that the judges went for another Finalist at the UK IT Industry Awards.

In fact we were rather impressed with, and pleased for, The Met Office and PA Consulting who together saw off some pretty stiff competition to get the gong at the Awards Dinner in Battersea, London last Wednesday night (14 November).

And I was surprised that there actually wasn’t more gloating by the victors. You know how some marketing types can behave when tanked up on too much champers.

The UK IT Industry Awards did a great job to properly recognise the role of Cloud Computing for the first time when they selected the Weather Observations Website (WOW) which is currently available online as beta. See http://wow.metoffice.gov.uk/

And we think that this actually bodes well for the entire IT industry in the near and long term. It means that Cloud has proven that it has learned to crawl, walk and run. In other words, it means that Cloud Computing is winning its place as a resilient and credible alternative to on-premise-only lock in. And at an enterprise level, we think that must be a good thing.

As our customer Haven Power will tell you, being selected as Finalist at all was very encouraging. Their Disaster Recovery system architected by Smart421 and built in the AWS Cloud drew some significant attention from the press when it was first announced and, most likely, gave The Met Office a fair run for its money in front of the judging panel.

But putting the industry high jinks aside, the real winners are our customers who have fully functioning Cloud DR in place today as part of their business continuity planning strategy. Stuff like this is the sharp end of the Cloud revolution.

It has to be said, attendees were also impressed with our colleagues at Kcom (neighbour brand in the KCOM Group stable) who sponsored the on-site Twitter Wall. It turned out to be the unexpected big hit of the night and Kcom ranked top for tweets.

Never mind the X factor – Cloud Computing showed it has the WOW factor at the UK IT Industry Awards.

It is another exciting day for Smart421 with the news that we have been confirmed as the first UK enterprise to be confirmed on the Amazon Partner Network (APN) as an Advanced Consulting Partner by Amazon Web Services (AWS).

AWS Logo Advanced Consulting Partner Dark

What does it really mean for Smart421 and our Customers?

In some ways, partner ‘labels’ are often seen as just that, labels, and can be given out like confetti. However, for Advanced Consulting Partner status, we had to put up some substantive evidence of various AWS capabilities including Customer references, minimum of $10,000 a month AWS billings, minimum of Business level AWS support (previously called Gold) and at least 10 trained AWS staff.

So before the cynics have a pop either at the program or at us, or both, I can reveal it does require proven AWS capabilities. That will sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’ so to speak :-)

Does it change anything for us? – well yes and no…..

In terms of Operations, we already have a great relationship with AWS (since 2010 as an AWS Solution Provider and since 2012 also as an AWS Direct Connect Solution Provider) with access to a range of valuable contact points, from technical contacts through to Sales and up into Senior Management in the UK and USA. From my perspective as AWS Practice Manager, the existing relationship means regular face-to-face monthly meetings with our technical contacts in AWS, access to the product teams including ‘gurus’ based in Seattle, involvement in beta trials for new features etc. so the APN will just help reinforce those good relationships.

Perhaps the biggest change will be the impact of membership of the APN for our Customers. We are now able to be able to leverage a wealth of AWS resources on our Customers behalf. This translates into concrete deliverables as straightforward as documentation right through to support from technical architects during delivery engagements. It adds up to an improved level of confidence for our Customers that our proven AWS capabilities are fully backed by AWS and its rapidly growing global eco-system.

It means far more than a partner label to us and our Customers….

Great news for Smart421 – we have been awarded a Framework Agreement on the new UK Government G-Cloud. This adds to our stock of real-world Cloud credentials – – but I was pondering what this means for us ?

Am I confident that the G-Cloud is going to change minds about the security of Cloud deployments – so opening the flood gates of opportunities?   No, of course not, but it’s certainly another step closer to making Cloud mainstream for public sector as well as private sector.

We’re probably not going to see adverts for the G-Cloud “CloudStore” on the TV for a while either.

But watch this space.

Last week 4 Smarties including myself were lucky enough to attend Microsoft Tech.Days Windows Azure Bootcamp in London. Usually for days like this Microsoft estimate (and allow for) around a 50% attendance rate, however 90% of the registered attendees for this event showed up which showed how much interest in cloud computing is taking off and required some quick provisioning of additional space from the organisers (akin to provisioning additional storage space in the cloud).

The camp was presented by Steve Plank (http://plankytronixx.com/default.aspx), with the content being a mixture of lecture / demo and try for yourself. This provided the audience with an overview of the current Azure platform and enough knowledge to walk away and start creating cloud based apps capable of exercising a number of basic Azure features.

There was also a quick 10 minute presentation during break time from the recently formed London Windows Azure User Group (http://www.lwaug.net) who’s first meeting is on the 6th December and sounds like it will be well worth regularly attending to both hear from their guest speakers and touch base with a number of other Azure developers to talk through experiences using the platform. Plus mention was given to the upcoming ‘6 Weeks of Azure’ programme (http://www.sixweeksofazure.co.uk/) beginning at the end of Jan 2012 where 6 weeks of free help will be given to UK companies wanting to have a look at the platform.

Based on the content presented on the day it is clear that a lot of thought has been put into the features within Azure and making sure that these will be easy to integrate into both existing and new developments where appropriate (and not just using Microsoft development tools or languages).

The main area that I am looking forward to diving deeper into is the Azure App Fabric, particularly the Azure Service Bus (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/ee732537.aspx) as this looks like it will be incredibly useful in stitching together dispersed applications and also hooking existing on-premise solutions into new cloud based offerings and also the Caching Service (http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/gg278356.aspx) which will be really great  for both distributed and high bandwidth apps.

On the day the only part of the App Fabric that was demoed was the Access Control Service which under the covers used SAML.  Before the event I had dismissed as being just another way to validate users. However after seeing how easy this is to implement and use plus the ability to integrate with Active Directory via the use of ADFS2 (http://www.microsoft.com/download/en/details.aspx?displaylang=en&id=10909)  and a number of other authentication providers such as Google, Yahoo or LiveID I can see it becoming part of most Azure developments.

One question we had been kicking around prior to the event was ‘how production ready is Azure?’ as with other cloud service providers (such as AWS) we have tended to see our customers start by using these services for test / development or disaster recovery environments rather than production.

Although not fully answered it was clear that Microsoft are looking for customers to place production as well as development systems in Azure and have also been doing their homework on the problems previously experienced by other providers architecting the underlying infrastructure accordingly to cope with this.

Microsoft are offering a 99.95% SLA for external connectivity for compute hosted services that meet their criteria (at least 2 host instances configured for a service) which is the same as AWS for EC2 instances however the  Azure terms are measured monthly rather than yearly for AWS.

Azure also contains additional features such as the recently released SQL Azure Data Sync which allows data to be synchronised between SQL Azure instances in different locations and it was hinted that resilience features like this along with a huge number of other enhancements are currently under development across the platform.

Based on what was shown and discussed during the event it looks like there are exciting times ahead in the Windows Azure space and I am looking forward to architecting, developing and supporting applications that make use of its features.

Ipswich from the air

Ipswich from the air. Photo by kind permission of Stu Smith. More at http://bit.ly/o4OMrc

 One of our more intrepid colleagues, Smart421 lead consultant Stu Smith, has just published some outstanding aerial photos of Ipswich.

When he’s not architecting IT systems, configuring IBM DataPower appliances behind closed doors in a customer’s data centre or speaking at industry events (e.g. WUG), Stu is often flying the skies of urban or suburban areas with his paramotor or paragliding over more inhospitable terrains somewhere in the world.

His latest views of Ipswich, taken in August, can be found here http://bit.ly/o4OMrc

Those familiar with the area will easily spot the Smart421 technical centre at Felaw Maltings, as well as Portman Road (home of Ipswich Town Football Club).

Leave a comment to tell us what other landmarks you can see.

freedigitalphotos.net - graur razvan ionutAt long last we’re now outside the closed KCOM financial reporting period, and therefore Smart421’s 2010/11 financial results are out in the public domain…and so I can crow about them :). There’s some brief analysis of our parent company’s results here, and the phrase used about the Smart421 results is “Managed services outfit Smart421 enjoyed a year of particularly impressive growth in FY11, with turnover rising 42 per cent to £23m“.

Obviously we’ve known about this rate of growth internally for pretty much the whole financial year, and it’s been frustrating to have to keep it under wraps. For example in recent briefings to Gartner analysts I’ve had to skirt around the actual numbers which I felt was selling ourselves a bit short really. It’s been an absolutely stellar year – and I thought I’d just take a breath to pick out three of the many things that made this happen:

  • Amazon Web Services partnership – we’ve been waiting for the cloud computing market to mature to the point that we felt we could credibly offer the benefits to our enterprise customers, and in Q4 2010 decided the time was right and signed up with AWS in the UK as AWS Solution Providers. Since then we’ve closed customer deals in Q1 2011 and have now won our first piece of repeat business in this area – so the strategy is bearing fruit.
  • SOA v2 – there’s been a lot of interest in SOA this year, and a key win for us in this area is our relationship with Virgin Atlantic. My view is that many enterprises made their first foray into SOA a few years ago, built some services, and often not seen the ROI and reuse that they expected. This attached a rather bad smell to SOA for a while, but the harsh reality is that these enterprises still have integration needs – they don’t and won’t go away. And so what we’ve seen in the market is a resurgence of interest in more structured and strategic adoption of SOA.
  • Doing a good job – It’s a truism that’s it’s easier to sell to an existing customer than find a new one – but the fact is that a significant part of our growth has come from repeat business. If we weren’t delivering what our existing customers wanted (or maybe it’s better to say, what they needed!) with the highest quality, then this wouldn’t happen. In the end, this all comes back to having the right people on the bus, which we clearly have. And they’ve worked very hard to make this happen.

Here’s to the next financial year!

I also had the opportunity to attend the    Websphere User Group (WUG) meeting on 23rd March 2011 at Bedfont Lakes. The WUG is a very popular topic amongst colleagues at Smart421 as its a great community

As someone who doesn’t have much direct WebSphere experience on a day-to-day basis, I was wondering if I would struggle to follow the content. However, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised as the tracks were designed for a variety of skills levels. There were several talks that any Java developer would find interesting. There were actually 13 streams running over the course of the day. Many focused on specific IBM products (as you’d expect) but also some focused on more general topics such as Java, and OSGi.

The first session I attended was the WebSphere Foundation Update and Technical Direction in the WAS 1 stream. This session by Ian Robinson gave an overview of forthcoming features in WAS v8. While this was a very WAS specific session it also provided useful updates on several areas in the J2EE space. To download the slides, click here.

The second session I attended was in the WAS 2 stream on JAX-WS 2.2 and JAX-RS 1.1 support in WebSphere Application Server Version 8.0 Beta . The presenter, Katherine Sanders, a software engineer at IBM Hursley,  gave a very good introduction to these two technologies without being tempted to delve into a lot of overly-heavy WAS-specific details. To download the slides, click here.

The third session I attended was given by Simon Cashmore, a Lead Engineer within the Global Middleware team at Barclays Bank.  This talk, Changing the way Java Application Hosting is delivered at Barclays Bank , stood out by a mile as it was the only session in the Customer stream (c’mon WUG Committee, more like this please). It was informative because it focused on Barclays’ new approach to hosting Java applications. Barclays have essentially built their own collection of virtualised WAS instances that can be made available in days rather than weeks or months. Previously, projects would buy brand new hardware that was not shared or reused, so costs and timescales were sky high. Now they have a shared resource that can be used and reused much more efficiently – and more cost effectively. I’m sure Barclays shareholders will be very pleased to hear that  ;o)

The fourth and final session I attended was a talk in the Java stream on Generational Garbage Collection: Theory and Best Practices. This was focused on how the IBM JVM works, but Chris Bailey, a technical architect in the Java Technology Center (JTC) team at IBM Hursley, gave a very detailed description of it which applies to any JVM that implements Generational Garbage Collection. To get a copy of Chris’ slides, click here.

So if you’re in doubt whether you should attend a WUG meeting because you feel don’t have enough WebSphere experience then let me reassure you that any Java developer will find something of interest. There were also suggestions of adding a more business focused stream to future meetings to widen the potential audience even more.

Details of all WUG activities and events can be found here.

Richard Holland, Operations and Delivery Director of Eagle Genomics

Richard Holland, Operations and Delivery Director of Eagle Genomics addresses delegates at the 2011 AWS Tech Summit, London 17 March.

The AWS Technical Summit in London 17 March [see http://aws.amazon.com/aws-tech-summit-london-2011/] was very worthwhile and no one could fail to notice that AWS themselves were taken by surprise in the exceptional attendance levels. Along with colleagues, Smart421 attended as AWS Solution Providers.

One of the key takeaways for me was how AWS continues to be highly responsive to the market. As well as bringing features to market in rapid succession, they have also listened and replied convincingly on the recurrent obstacle of security in the Cloud.

In fact, in addition to AWS’s already comprehensive security stance [see http://aws.amazon.com/security/] it emerged that one of AWS’s customers, Eagle Genomics based in Cambridge UK, had also permitted two independent IT consulting firms, AT&T and Cognizant, to perform ethical hacking on their AWS instances (permissions obviously required in advance).  The outcome?  Both firms reported that it couldn’t be done.

For hardcore sceptics (aren’t we all at heart), AWS say they have a list of partners that provide services around ethical hacking. This means that if your business case warrants a belt and braces approach on security, it’s possible to engage IT consulting firms these kinds of trials dedicated to your instance or instances in the Amazon cloud.

In reality, with some notable exceptions where systems are understandably internalised, both physical security and digital security offered in AWS is far in excess what the majority of organisations are able to provide for themselves. I’m certainly not alone in thinking that a far bigger risk for enterprises resides in the portability of data (e.g. copies held on company laptops, CDs, USB keys, etc) than in hacking instances of Cloud computing, particularly those on AWS.

It would seem that the objection around security in the cloud is being steadily eroded away. About time.

successOur parent company posted their half-year results today, and there are some great quotes about Smart421’s contribution to those figures here from CRN Channelweb. These are my favourites…

Systems integrator Smart421 was the star performer for KCOM Group as the comms group issued a buoyant interim statement

…its Smart421 arm, which specialises in systems integration and managed services of business-critical systems, saw sales boom 33 per cent to £10.8m. KCOM Group said this reflects the growing demand for the provision of applications integration and consultancy

We’ve had a cracking last 6-12 months and everyone (and I mean everyone) in the company has pulled together and worked their socks off to support the huge growth phase we’ve been going through, so it’s really nice to see this recognised in the public domain. We all need a pat on the back sometimes. It’s also great to see the buzz around the company with real excitement about how we are going to continue this momentum in the next 18 months by taking new offerings to the market.

This year’s Xmas party is going to be a brilliant, letting the hair down do – looking forward to it!

ImageSome of us within Smart421 are currently looking at the “softer” skills required to enhance and develop our approach to running Consultancy engagements.  This isn’t about Project Management or Business Analysis, although these are important parts of any engagement.  It’s more about building relationships, managing the client, understanding personalities, leading teams and so on.

With this in mind, I’ve just finished a fairly intensive 5-day training course towards the ISEB certificate in IS Consultancy Practice.  The course is a great compliment to my ISEB Diploma in Business Analysis and builds on some of the ideas from the diploma.

Our trainer was Sue Calvert from Parity Training, who did a great job of covering a huge breadth of material, building in plenty of case study time for the group and keeping us interested for 5 days – thanks Sue! You can see the aims and syllabus on the Parity Training website, so I won’t repeat it all here.

I was joined by David Clothier of Siemens and Faisal Choudhry of Fujitsu.  Whilst it would have been good to have more people on the course, to get the ideas flowing and see how other people approached the case study, we got on well and managed to keep the energy up during the group work.

We covered a lot of ground, so there was an obvious trade-off in terms of depth.  But good use of case study work and homework (gasp!) really helped us get a better feel for some of the more important aspects.

Thursday’s homework was preparing a 10 minute presentation on a topic from the syllabus – I chose “Managing Bids and Contracts”, as these are areas that everyone in Smart421 is regularly involved in.

Some of the key things I learned or had re-inforced were:

  • Identify Supporters and manage Blockers
    It’s crucial to understand who can help and hinder the achievement of your objectives.  Assuming your Sponsor isn’t a Blocker (!), get them to help with this.
  • Use appropriate analysis tools and techniques to prompt you to capture and manage information
    Used well, MOST, SWOT, PESTLE, RACI, MANDACT (and many more!) can be really helpful.
  • Build the relationship
    This is something that Smart421 already does pretty well – don’t treat engagements as one-off’s.  Build trust, demonstrate capability by delivering, identify other areas where you can genuinely help the client and the relationship will bloom and grow!
  • Identify and manage Risks
    There are risks within the assignment, and there will be other risks to us as the supplier of Consultancy services.  It’s important to track all of these.
  • Always clarify the budget
    This really determines whether the solution is Bugatti Veyron or Chevrolet Lacetti.  We forgot to do this at one stage on the case study.  D’oh.  Although we did find ways to make huge savings for the imaginary client – creating additional budget! :-)
  • Understand Mindsets, Personality Types and Motivations
    In the client and in your consultancy team.  This helps to tailor your approach, communication and deliverables, get the best out of your team and deliver maximum value to the client.
  • People, Process, Technology
    In any transformation, remember there’s more to a solution than the IT/IS component.

I’m looking forward to putting some of these learnings into practice on upcoming engagements.

Fingers crossed for the 2 hour written exam on 14th August!  Must remember to make time for revision…

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